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Should you let your children have candy? You know it’s bad for them. There’s no question you know that. But candy is out there. It’s everywhere.
If some parents give their kids candy in moderation, and you do not, won’t that tend to cause some sort of psychological damage to your child? And let’s say you’re willing to risk that—won’t they just sneak it on the sly, at every opportunity? And if so, by setting up this situation, aren’t you really just teaching your children to keep secrets from you, not to mention lie?
Yup. Parents are between a rock (candy) and a hard (candy) place when it comes to dispensing sweets to their children. If you deprive them of candy, they’ll sneak it and lie. They’ll also think you’re the mean parent from Hell.
Candy Ain’t Dandy
Giving candy to them, on the other hand, is as bad as giving them poison (more on this later) or drugs (ditto). Last but not least, candy is a direct route to the dentist.
So what do you do???
Let’s begin with examining what the experts have to say.
Sherry Coleman-Collins, a registered dietitian, says the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 2-18 consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar daily, which excludes the naturally-occurring sugars found in fruit or milk. Children under two, says Coleman-Collins, should avoid added sugar altogether. “It’s easy to get six teaspoons of added sugar, even without eating candy since it’s added to crackers, bread and pasta sauces, just to name a few common foods,” says Coleman-Collins.
Okay, you’re thinking. But what is sugar going to do to my child’s body? Is it really that bad? Will the occasional sweet treat damage my child for life? Will eating gummy bears set up some sort of vicious cycle that cannot be broken?
So here’s the thing: you already know that candy causes tooth decay. You most likely know that eating more sugar has led to increasing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes. But did you know that eating lots of sugary foods can actually change your child’s perception of how food tastes?
It’s true. Eat too much candy and soda and an apple or a banana will no longer taste sweet at all. The next time your child wants something sweet, fruit isn’t going to cut it. That child is going to want more candy to slake his sweet tooth.
This being the case, how should a parent handle a child begging for soda and sweets? “Instead of saying, ‘No, you cannot have a soda,’ you might tell a young child, ‘We drink water because it’s really good for our bodies and it doesn’t have a lot of extra chemicals in it,’ says Elaine Taylor-Klaus, a parenting coach. “‘Chemicals are not so good for us. It’s okay to have them sometimes, but we don’t want to make it a habit, because we want to make healthy choices, right?’
“Or perhaps you set an expectation that sweets come after healthy food. So you might say, ‘Yeah, that candy looks really yummy, and I can see how you want that right now. But we have dinner in a little while and we really need to make sure that we are eating foods that are good for our bodies and our health before we eat the candy,'” says Taylor-Klaus.
Parents who give children sweets within limits after eating a healthy meal will generally have to continue that conversation about healthy eating for the long term. Once kids have candy, you see, they’re going to want more candy. And that’s not just about perceptions or taste buds. When your child eats candy, a certain part of his brain lights up—the same part of the brain that’s activated by cocaine addiction.
So do you give your child, “in moderation,” something his brain treats as an addictive substance? “The truth is that children don’t need candy at all, since it provides no nutritional value,” says Coleman-Collins.
Adina Pearson, a registered dietitian who works with families, doesn’t disagree, but suggests that nature predisposes children to want candy. “Kids are naturally drawn to sweet flavors—even breast milk is sweet. And there is research that suggests that this affinity for sweets stays strong until lineal growth is complete. So there’s a likely biological basis to help kids get enough calories.”
Coleman-Collins says those necessary calories can come from other foods, “There are lots of other sweet treats that have some positives without the side effect of empty calories and increased risk of cavities. All that said, I’m not militant about candy with my own child and don’t suggest that my clients be either. The occasional candy treat is just fine in the context of an overall super nutritious diet.”
Taylor-Klaus believes that just as parents talk about the effects of sugar on the body, so too, they can and should talk to even very young children about the effects of sugar on the brain. Parents can explain things in simple terms: “‘Did you know that candy can actually make you not want to eat healthy food? It’s sad, but true. So let’s wait on the candy until after you’re body has gotten all the good stuff it needs, first — what do you think?’ If the child says s/he is hungry, you might add, ‘Well, it’s funny, but just thinking about candy can actually make your brain start really wanting something sweet. What if we have a piece of fruit to help your brain and body feel good until dinner?'”
Pushing off sweets until after healthy foods have been consumed and allowing sweets in moderation seems sound in theory, but did you know that sugar can harm your child’s metabolism? It appears that when kids eat sugar, their bodies stop responding to satiety cues. That means they no longer know when they’re full. Which means they’ll keep eating—which can lead to metabolic syndrome: a whole slew of disorders (high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and belly fat) that occur at the same time. Metabolic syndrome increases the risk for such health issues such as stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.
Then there’s the fact that your child’s diet, good or bad, paves the way for the state of his dental health, both now and in the future. Children don’t know enough to brush and floss every time they eat sweets. The end result of unlimited or unregulated candy consumption is bound to be decay and damage to the teeth.
If parents, on the other hand, give children candy in moderation and follow this by always making sure children brush and floss eating sweets, children may just learn to associate candy consumption with cleaning their teeth. “Once the candy is eaten, it should be followed by good oral hygiene including two minutes of tooth brushing to avoid cavities. Ideally, this would happen within 30 minutes of consuming the candy to avoid the detrimental effects of sugar on the teeth,” says Dr. Seth Newman, an orthodontist.
Of course, it’s not going to be easy keeping your child’s candy habit as “moderate” as the experts suggest, because of marketing. The food industry purposely targets children and teens to the tune of $2 billion every year. There’s no doubt that much of that marketing is dedicated to plugging sweets. Children are suggestible. If they see a beloved cartoon character telling them to buy lollypops, they’re going to want to obey that command. They’re going to beg you to buy that product for them. It’s not fair and it’s not right. It’s business.
It also bears mentioning that the number one choking hazard for small children is—you guessed it—hard candy. And choking is the fourth leading cause of death in children under five. You wouldn’t think a four year-old would choke on a candy or lollypop. You’d think that child was old enough to be in control of things. You’d be wrong.
Now you know what candy can do to your child. Candy is bad, clearly. As bad as it is, however, you know that forbidding your child candy is liable to make him sneak it. “When we make something ‘forbidden’ from our kids, it tends to give it more power than it would have if we treat it matter-of-factly,” says Taylor-Klaus. “Candy is a terrific example. When we take a moderate approach to candy and sweets, we can teach our children about healthy eating and how our body works. Ultimately, we want to help them practice decision-making when they are younger, and learn how to make healthy choices for themselves as they get older.”
Dr. Newman agrees, “We all remember those children growing up who were not allowed to have any candy. Studies have shown that complete deprivation of sweets or other desirable foods only makes them more appealing to children. Excess candy consumption could lead to weight gain and dental cavities”
Probably the most we can do as parents is to educate our children. We can teach them to eat healthy food and help them understand that candy can hurt their bodies. We can teach them to brush their teeth after treats and impart good dental hygiene habits. Most of all, we can educate children to understand that if they’re going to eat candy, it should be on a very limited basis, when mommy and daddy say so.
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